Local undrafted free agents finally get a chance

On the days when it seemed like the NFL lockout might never end, former Maryland wide receiver LaQuan Williams would stand at the register of Sherman Williams, where he was holding down a part-time job, and try to block out his frustrations.

His family tried to keep his spirits up. But he still felt like his dream of ever playing professional football was quietly slipping away. When he wasn't selected in the NFL Draft in April, the Poly graduate fell in to football limbo. He couldn't sign a free agent contract with a team until the lockout ended, and he didn't even know if teams would still want him when it did.

Williams wasn't alone, even though he felt at times like he was. In fact, all around the country, there were hundreds of players in similar situations. Although it became convenient to frame the NFL lockout as a squabble between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners, college athletes like Williams who went undrafted but weren't ready to give up on football felt just as vested in the outcome. But all they could do was wait until it was resolved, and pray there was still a place for them.

"I got to a point where I wasn't sure if I was ever going to get an opportunity," said Williams, a highly-rated recruit out of high school who was plagued by injuries at Maryland. "It was pretty stressful."

An alternate path

The NFL has a rich history of teams discovering talent in the massive pool of undrafted players that exists each year. In recent years, players such as Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Priest Holmes, Bart Scott, Wes Welker and Arian Foster developed into Pro Bowl selections despite the fact that they weren't selected coming out of college.

But for every future star, there are literally hundreds of players who spend little more than a few weeks filling out an NFL roster during training camps, a reality that's hard to ignore. Making a team as an undrafted rookie will be even more difficult this season, because players will have a very small window to convince a coaching staff they're worthy of being kept over experienced veterans and players who were drafted. Instead of an entire off-season, undrafted players have only a few weeks to make their case before initial cuts occur. They also missed out on a summer of working with coaches, which gives them the chance to show the intangibles that often set less physically gifted players apart.

And under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams have a total of $75,000 to split among their entire undrafted free agent class. That means an undrafted player might pocket as little as $3,000 before he's told it's time to pack up his locker. The Ravens signed a total of 26 undrafted free agents this week.

Those long odds, however, rarely deter young men who have dreamed their entire lives of playing in the NFL. Walter Sanders, who grew up in West Baltimore and graduated from Mervo, is one of those long shots. Doubts don't bother him, because they've been a regular part of his life for as long as he can remember.

"It's been pretty tough, but my whole life has been pretty tough," said Sanders, who played college football at St. Augustine's College, a Division II school in North Carolina. "All my life I've been in struggling situations. My mom raised five kids by herself, and I'm the oldest. I had to be the man of the house and help raise my brothers and sisters. They looked up to me as a father, a mentor and a friend. My mom didn't have a college education, so one day I knew I had to make a difference in our lives."

Sanders, too, struggled to make ends meet while waiting for the lockout to be resolved. When he wasn't lifting weights, studying film or running, he was cutting grass, cleaning houses, washing cars and doing anything he could to pay his bills. It was humbling work for someone who had been a star at St. Augustine's, where he rushed for 1,377 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior while earning his degree in business, but it was necessary.

"I didn't want to pursue a career just yet," Sanders said. "I've been training twice a day and saying my prayers every night, knowing that at some point I would get a phone call from a team that was interested in me."

Finally, a call

Maryland linebacker Adrian Moten believed similar things about his future, that someone would eventually give him a chance, but it wasn't always easy to maintain focus. He applied for jobs at Radio Shack and at various shoe stores, hoping to land a part-time position that would still give him time to lift and run in the mornings so that he would be ready when NFL teams could finally sign undrafted free agents, but most employers weren't interested in a part-time summer employee. Money was getting tight, and Moten was getting anxious.

"I wanted to work," Moten said. "I just couldn't find anything. I figured if I could get a part-time job that would put a little money in my pocket, I wouldn't have worry about asking my mom for stuff. But it didn't work out. I didn't know what was going to happen next."

Each day, when he was done lifting weights and running conditioning drills until his body was on the brink of exhaustion, Moten would climb back into his car and make the return trip to his mother's home in Suitland. He would gaze with longing at various restaurants along the way, wishing he could afford to stop and buy himself a sandwich while knowing he had no choice but to wait until he could instead make one in his mother's kitchen.

"I'm not going to lie, it's been a stressful summer," Moten said. "I hope it's just one of those storms in life that comes at you, and you've got to overcome it."

When the lockout finally ended this week, Moten, Williams and Sanders felt like they were about to go stir crazy. They knew if the calls didn't come within the first two days, their football careers were likely over.

So when their agents called Tuesday to deliver the news — the Indianapolis Colts wanted to sign Moten, and the Ravens were planning to sign Williams and Sanders — it felt like all the sweaty afternoons and miserable workouts in the hot summer sun had been worth it.

"Man, I was so excited," Sanders said. "It felt so good. It's been a long time coming. I've waited my whole life for the opportunity to play in the National Football League. To have the chance to play for my hometown team? I feel blessed. I grew up watching the Ravens."

Williams feels like it is his first chance at a fresh start. He broke his ankle his freshman year at Maryland, slipped down the depth chart and never really made it out of the coaching staff's doghouse. Whatever happens now is up to him.

"There is definitely no feeling like getting a call from your dream team," said Williams, who credited his mom, Daphne Boone, for keeping him sane through the whole process. "I feel like I have a chance to show my ability and show my work ethic, and that's the most important thing. I want to come in and make some plays and just see what happens."

Moten was just about to board a flight to Indianapolis when a reporter called him to ask how it felt to get the news he'd been waiting months to receive.

"I was really excited," Moten said. "I was just really happy a team wanted me. It's a great opportunity for me, and I know I'm ready. I'm ready for anything."

Moten apologized that he had to cut the conversation short. His flight was boarding. He didn't want to miss his first day of work.



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